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Public Life, Private Tragedy

by Steve Paikin

John P. Robarts: Ontario premier from 1961-1971, dedicated modernizer of the province’s schools and universities, creator of its community college system. The University of Toronto’s Robarts Library – one of the most daunting such edifices in the world – would seem like a fitting monument. Then again, there was the other Robarts: the party animal who spent his free nights not in quiet study but in frantic barhopping and womanizing. A plaque at Toronto’s Brunswick House pub might have been just as fitting.

Public Life, Private Tragedy is the third book by Steve Paikin, the intelligent and likeably goofy TV Ontario personality, and is based on a popular TVO documentary. Written at the behest of a group of Robarts’ former cronies, the book feels quickly written (Paikin’s TV-style vocabulary – “bang on,” “go-go,” “blast into the stratosphere,” “huge kudos” – doesn’t help). Nonetheless, Paikin has clearly done his homework, especially in dozens of interviews with Robarts’ friends and colleagues, who often speak with great candour.

The book provides a good summary of Robarts’ political career, from his early years as a charismatic junior member of the Ontario old boys’ network through his term as education minister to his subsequent decade as premier. In Paikin’s telling, Robarts was essentially a political progressive, advocating anglophone-francophone detente before almost anyone else, investing hugely in education and public transit, righteously blasting subordinates over homophobic remarks.

But it’s on the private side where Paikin is most engaging. Much of the material sounds like a Vanity Fair exposé: Robarts and his first wife, who remained in London, Ontario, despite her husband’s career, were both raging alcoholics who hated one another. Alone in Toronto, Robarts engaged in antics that would have made JFK blush. Several family members and friends died prematurely; the man himself ultimately committed suicide following a series of debilitating strokes.

Public Life, Private Tragedy belongs to the ever-popular “powerful, charismatic guy with problems” genre. The key issue for a work like this is whether the subject comes off as a truly tragic figure, or as merely spoiled by power and adulation. Paikin’s book may not quite deserve huge kudos, and it probably won’t blast into the stratosphere. Nonetheless, it succeeds where it counts: by the end, readers should come away feeling both respect and sympathy for its subject.